You never know how big a bull’s face is until yours is shoved up next to it, and another human face presses hard against your cheek and you are trapped between the two of them, none of you able to move, because the people in front of you are stuck, and the bull is pressing you from behind, and now a person is trying to crowdsurf over you…
Then you realize how big it is. You knew that already, beforehand. You knew it when you decided to come to Pamplona, when you started getting in shape for it. You knew it when you saw the bulls thundering towards you and the people tripping over themselves and falling in piles on either side of the narrow street, unable to keep up with the pace of the massive bulls. But no, there is nothing like being as close to a bull as a babe to its mother.
After Friday’s bull run in Pamplona—the sixth encierro of the annual eight-day Fiesta de San Fermín in the Basque town of Pamplona—I thought it couldn't get any worse. A black bull had become obsessed with a young runner dressed in blue and yellow. On TV the scene was grotesque. The bull would not leave the man alone for a good thirty seconds—which is an eternity when a "clean" run from the corral to the Plaza de Toros can last just over two minutes. He kept attacking him with his horns, pulling his pants down, and at one point picking him up and throwing him back down in the most spectacular scene. The runner, we are told, is recovering and was not fatally wounded.
But it got worse. When the camera shot the final stretch of Saturday’s encierro, I saw that something was very, very wrong.
The running of the bulls begins with the chupinazo, a loud noise set off by fire right next to the corral where the bulls are kept. The bulls have been there all night, and before they run through the streets of Pamplona, they are joined by the cabestros, light-colored, spotted bulls that know the way and are not toros bravos—they mean no harm, and they will not be killed that day in bullfights. The cabestros show the dangerous bulls the way, ushering them through the sea of people—many of them dressed in the traditional loose white shirt and pants with a red bandana around the neck. When the chupinazo goes off, the cabestros bolt into the first street, la cuesta de Santo Domingo, with the toros bravos following close behind, or preferably, right up next to them. The bulls continue on Mercaderes and curve onto Estafeta, then finish the run on Telefónica Street leading into the callejón—the narrow passageway into the Plaza de Toros. There the cabestros lead them straight through the bullring to the opposite passageway, beyond which they will be kept before coming out to be played by a bullfighter later that day.
Or at least, that is what’s supposed to happen.
Many things can go wrong. One bull can sprint ahead of the rest and become very confused and start goring people. A bull can fall on the curve of Mercaderes and Estafeta. A bull can turn around on Telefónica and refuse to go into the callejón and instead try to run backwards into the people. Or, as occurred on Saturday—and for the first time this bad since 1977—a huge human pile-up can form at the end of the callejón, where it opens into the bullring.
On Saturday, the cabestros hit the massive pile-up first. The six toros bravos smashed in behind them. There were many seconds of collective panic and standstill as neither bulls nor humans could move. At last one of the cabestros was led into a side-door and all the bulls followed suit and entered the ring. But much damage was already done. People had been crushed beneath the weight of other people from above, and bulls and people from behind. A few of the victims are still in serious condition as of this writing.
|Source: RTVE. (This image inspired the opening lines of this post.)|
In about two months, I will be going back to Spain—back to this country of bulls and daring, of tourists and traditions, of songs and of pain. I will be living in Sevilla, home to one of the most famous bullrings as well as countless dancers, singers, and poets, who have been inspired by the tradition, beauty, tragedy, and fanaticism that surrounds the ancient connection between men and bulls in Spain. Today the runners in Pamplona invoke San Fermín to guide them through the run, but there is something more primordial than Christianity to the tradition. Running along Mercaderes, all that matters is the humans and the bulls, the bulls and the humans. All else is barricaded, inconsequential, for about two crucial minutes of one’s life. I can only imagine what it must be like in those minutes to feel connected to the majestic and dangerous animal, to feel oneself become, in many ways, an animal.
After watching the chilling pile-up, I re-read Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska, a short Newbery Award-winning novel that affected me deeply in the third grade (thank you, Ms. Earnst!). It is a coming-of-age story about a boy who is expected to become a great bullfighter like his dead father once was. In the first chapter, the book poses a convincing and beautiful theory as to the primordial relationship between people and bulls in Spain:
“In Spain, however, people have found a way of cheating death. They summon it to appear in the afternoon in the bull ring, and they make it face a man. Death—a fighting bull with horns as weapons—is killed by a bullfighter. And the people are there watching death being cheated of its right.”
The Pamplonadas every year offer normal people the chance to face death and overcome it, and come back again for the thrill. For this reason, perhaps, Hemingway was so drawn to them.
And I myself must admit to being seduced by the whole song and dance. The ancient rituals, the beauty of the bulls, the countless miracles each day when horns don’t gore the runners, who are said to be saved by el capote de San Fermín (the cape of Saint Fermín). The red of the cape later in the bull ring, the man dancing with the bull, the moment of truth. All these captivate me.
But then there is that awful pile-up, that surreal scene like nothing I have ever seen before. I am sure I will watch a bullfight in Sevilla (what writer can live in that city and not seek inspiration from the Plaza de Toros, which is alive in sorrowful flamenco songs and the collective imagination?) but there is no way I will ever run with the bulls.